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November 2016

People Fuel Performance

Resorts have long known that employees can greatly impact business performance. Here’s a look at how to ensure that impact is positive.

Written by Paul Thallner | 0 comment
This article is based on a presentation by Paul Thallner (above) at the SAM Summer Ops Camp in Park City, Utah, in September. This article is based on a presentation by Paul Thallner (above) at the SAM Summer Ops Camp in Park City, Utah, in September.

Many companies express their aspirations through their values, a set of core beliefs that drive behavior and decision-making. Values define not only the explicit ground rules for how employees should operate when representing the company, but also the implied rules. In a perfect world, when given autonomy to make a choice, employees—regardless of their role in the company—would always remember and be guided by the company’s values.

After a quick review of 10 ski area websites, I was not able to find any values statements. That does not mean values are absent, but they are not apparent. In fact, most ski area websites are pretty similar. So, I began to wonder, what makes ski areas different? Besides location, why would people want to work at one versus another?

What is present and very consistent in most ski area websites, and in the conversations I had recently at SAM’s Summer Ops Camp, is the skiing ethos—the characteristics that make up the unique way ski people interact with each other and with customers. Organically created over time, and not confined to any one resort, it is the feeling you get when you know you are with other ski people. They implicitly understand what you are doing and why you may be doing it.

Organizational culture, on the other hand, is a set of beliefs and attitudes that shape how people in an organization behave and work together to create value. Ski areas can have different cultures while still being part of the skiing ethos.

In fact, ski areas should have cultures that are distinct from each other. Many companies see culture as a way of building competitive advantage. Consider Southwest Airlines, Google, Ritz-Carlton, Amazon, and many others focused on creating a unique workplace environment that competitors cannot replicate. While an ethos evolves organically over time, more and more companies are defining their cultures in very intentional ways.

Why Culture Matters

The state of a company’s culture can make or break its business success. Everyone who interacts with your company has an experience and is left with a memory or sentiment. That includes guests, vendors, partners, staff, the media, and others. The collection of sentiments people carry becomes a narrative they believe to be true about your company.

For example, if customers encounter a grumpy ski lift operator (not that there are very many such people out there, this is just an example), they will be left with a feeling that your mountain is full of similarly grumpy people. And once people have a narrative in their heads, they tend to look for confirming evidence. So, after they encounter one grumpy person, they may see only grumpiness in every other employee they interact with during the rest of their stay—whether the employees are truly grumpy or not.

Similarly, if you hold meetings with your staff and you only point out shortcomings, they will come to believe that you don’t actually see the things that are going well. And if that’s their belief, what impact do you think that has on their performance?

Science has proven what we intuitively know: There is a correlation between a strong, high-trust culture and business performance. It’s simply that trust fuels performance.

Consider these findings from global consulting and survey company Great Place to Work. Companies with cultures that rate high in levels of trust:
• perform better financially and are better prepared to weather economic downturns
• receive more qualified job applicants for open positions
• experience less voluntary turnover
• see reductions in the negative effects of stress on employees
• enjoy higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty
• foster greater innovation, creativity, and risk-taking
• benefit from higher productivity and profitability, and
• improve client and customer perception.

Comparing results of the Great Place to Work Trust Index survey with business metrics, we see fascinating results. In the example to the right, companies that continuously work on and achieve a higher trust culture, as measured by the TI survey, see a reduction in inventory shrinkage (theft). That makes sense; if an employee trusts you and the company, they are less likely to steal your inventory because they feel entrusted with the business’ outcomes.

How might that translate to the winter sports industry? Could a high trust culture actually translate into a safer guest experience? Great Place to Work compared TI data with workplace injury reports, and the results are stunning. Workplaces whose employees have a consistently high-trust experience report substantially fewer workplace injuries.

Finally, a great culture pays off in the court of public opinion. Today, most job candidates research a prospective employer through social media and other digital sources. If your employees share their experiences on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Glassdoor, Indeed, or any of the countless other sites, it’s likely that your future workforce will find it. Creating a positive, high-trust workplace will increase your chances of attracting great candidates.

What Great Companies Do

Fortune magazine publishes an annual list of 100 Best Places to Work. These companies make the list because of their high-trust cultures and impactful, creative people practices. These practices touch all kinds of employees: full-time, part-time, hourly, and displaced workers.

Take REI, for example. REI was made aware of the corporate closure of a company in a related industry. REI reached out to the HR team at that company and offered to partner with them to match affected employees to positions at REI. REI was invited to visit the company and conduct interviews onsite. A team of recruiters and hiring managers made the trip, spoke with interested candidates and, to minimize downtime for people, made immediate, contingent offers.

Kimpton hotels and restaurants, the country’s largest boutique hotel chain, created “Bill’s Honor Roll.” Children of hourly employees who make their schools’ honor roll can receive a $25 Amazon or Barns & Noble gift card from Kimpton, based on their interests. The CEO also sends a personal note that accompanies the gift card congratulating the students on their achievement.

General Mills supports a forum that creates networking opportunities for part-time employees. It serves as a resource in developing part-time work arrangements, and helps educate General Mills about the benefits and implications of part-time employees. The company also works on social networking and compensation issues, and advises women’s networks on how to increase part-time opportunities.

These examples underscore some of the ways employers are making the workplace attractive and positive for their employees. Creative practices like these differentiate companies from their competitors and attract candidates who believe the company truly has employees’ best interest at heart.

What You Can Do

It is important to know that intentionally creating a high-trust culture takes time. In some cases, it can take years to transform from a dysfunctional/transactional culture to a high-trust/high-performance culture.

Similarly, CEOs of companies on the Fortune 100 Best List often say that maintaining a great culture requires a constant, relentless focus. Cultures don’t self-sustain; there are forces that constantly work against it. Leaders need to lead differently and integrate high-trust behaviors into every aspect of their work—from emails, to meetings, to how they walk around, to how they make important decisions.

Every journey starts with the first step. Here are a few things you can do to start on the path to your own unique, high-trust, high-performance culture:

1. Start Small. Maybe you are skeptical and don’t believe that small behaviors have a big impact. Organizational behavior experts often say, “An organization is perfectly designed to get the results it’s getting right now.” Take one week to simply observe what other people are doing.

Sit in a meeting and watch your staff. What did they do or not do to get the results they got at that meeting? At what point did someone share a good idea or stifle themselves? Did people talk over each other or actually listen to each other? Did people focus on why something could not be done, or why it could be done? What was under the surface that was driving peoples’ behavior? Old grudges? Apathy? Passion for the mission? Personal ambition?

2. Test your hypotheses. After you observe people, you will have some hypotheses. Without dramatically changing your style, create one small experiment that tests your hypothesis. See if your change in behavior has some impact.

For example, you could see what happens if you:
• listen twice as much as you talk.
• start meetings by asking people—sincerely asking—how they’re doing and what’s on their minds.
• initiate a conversation with that employee that everyone finds “difficult.”
• think out loud in front of your team about a problem that’s on your mind—and then tell them you have no idea how to solve it.
All of these experiments serve to reframe your leadership and allow space for others to stretch into new capabilities. You might be surprised what that does for morale, innovation, and productivity.

3. Measure your workplace quality. Several companies offer surveys and assessments to measure your workplace quality. For example, Great Place to Work offers a certification program through which businesses can earn the distinction of being a Great Place to Work.

Not only is the designation a great marketing and recruitment tool, asking employees’ opinions is a trust-building step. People who feel their voice matters have a far better perception of their workplace, and a survey is an efficient way to include their voices. In fact, using the survey in the off-season is a great way to keep your seasonal staff engaged even when they are not on the clock.

Today, the ski industry is competing in new ways, and with new activities. You are competing for customers and competing for talent. By creating a Great Place to Work, you can differentiate yourself, attract and retain great workers, and deliver a consistent positive experience for everyone who visits your mountain.It’s worth the effort.